A Corvette Lover's Paradise

See the U.S.A.’s finest Chevrolet -- or maybe bring one home

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The unique thing about the National Corvette Museum is that it's the only one in America where you can also get delivery of your new car of the same make.

That's because the Museum, celebrating its twelfth anniversary this year, is a mere quarter-mile across the road from General Motors' Corvette and Cadillac XLR assembly plant along I-65 at Bowling Green, Ky. Last year, when 37,372 C6 Corvettes were produced at the plant, 773 retail customers took delivery at the National Corvette Museum by selecting the "R8C" option when they ordered at their dealerships.

If Ford Motor Company had devised such a scheme for delivery of Thunderbirds at its Wixom plant outside Detroit - and properly promoted it - sales of the roadster might have been boosted and the model's life prolonged. Perhaps life of the Wixom plant itself - now on the kill list - could have been prolonged if a VIP delivery program for Lincolns had been added.

It "yoostabee," fifty years or so ago, that many new-car buyers of various makes would journey to the Mecca of Motordom, Detroit , to watch their new car being assembled and then take delivery "at the factory." I know for sure that such deliveries were made through the Ford Rouge Plant and the famous Ford Rotunda as well as at Plymouth 's Lynch Road Plant. No doubt others such as Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, Lincoln, Packard, Cadillac, and Hudson with Detroit plants did the same. That was because, besides the obvious visceral pleasure, delivery charges from Detroit made it economical to bypass the system - and automakers allowed it. Today, "destination charges" are baked into the sticker price and there's no way to beat it.

Corvette owners, of course, are a special breed, a cult you might say. They pay a $490 premium for the R8C privilege of getting delivery of their new 'Vette at the twin facilities in Bowling Green . Included is a membership in the Museum, a private tour of the assembly plant and the Museum, plaques, decals, photographs and, most important, a super-duper pre-delivery preparation by the Museum staff.

In addition, the Museum offers a separate VIP treatment called the NCM Xperience for owners of Corvettes other than the current model. This $350 program has many of the same features as the R8C new-car delivery. Obviously, they can't have an old car "pre-delivered" but they do get a spiffy cleaning and their 'Vette is then displayed on the floor of the Museum for photos.

Incidentally, public tours also are offered of the Corvette/XLR assembly plant, where all 'Vettes have been manufactured since 1981. Last year, a minor five-dollar charge per person started for the tour. To celebrate the plant's Silver Anniversary this year, there will be a no-doubt memorable program at the plant and Museum August 31 through September 3.

As far as I know, the only other American automotive assembly plant providing such a tour opportunity is the new Ford Rouge facility in Dearborn where F-150s are built, opened to the public not quite two years ago and certainly the only such plant tour in Michigan. There also is a charge for the Ford tour. As with so many things in life, what was once free, no longer is.

Before I become deluged with emails from fans of upscale European imports - yes, I am aware that such factory-delivery VIP programs are old-hat across the pond.

Special delivery

The morning I stopped by the Museum on my way to Florida , I happened to catch Mr. and Mrs. Bill Flammer of Savannah , Ga. , there to pick up their new dark-blue-with-white-top convertible from what the Museum folks call the "Corvette Nursery." They had flown to Nashville the day before, drove up to Bowling Green , some 65 miles, in a special-deal Enterprise rental car and overnighted in a special-discount motel room. Bill, in the construction business, told me he owned his first Corvette, a '62, when he was in college, and presently owns a '66 coupe and a '75 convertible as well.

There were five other new 'Vettes awaiting their owners to arrive, including silver, red, black, maroon, and red coupes and a red convertible. A couple were Z06 models with the distinctive air intake just below the front hood opening.

In addition to the special R8C delivery arrangement, the Museum also marks the parking lot spaces closest to the facility - excepting handicapped - as reserved for Corvettes only. Of 20 vehicles in the first two rows of the parking lot the January morning I visited, 14 were GM products.

The National Corvette Museum opened in 1994 as an enthusiasts' enterprise by volunteers over ten years of gestation. It started with a desire by 'Vette owner Terry McManmon to create a Corvette library and archive so restorers weren't fighting over literature at flea markets, leading to formation of the National Corvette Research Society. Then Ray Quinlan offered to donate an original '53 Corvette to a museum, if such a museum was founded with tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, and the aim shifted. Later, the National Council of Corvette Clubs protested they'd been left out, so the name was changed to National Corvette Museum in time for legendary Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov to break ground for the Bowling Green museum in 1992.

NCM membership dues range from $20 for children (!) to $50 for individuals, $100 for families, $250 for business, $1500 for lifetime, and $2500 for business lifetime.

It's unclear whether any General Motors Foundation money went into the original fund-raising, but in any event GM does not directly financially support the institution on an annual basis. GM however has provided numerous exhibit materials including significant cars, as well as some technical expertise and naturally uses the Museum facility for specific promotional activities.

Six generations of speed

As a volunteer enterprise, then, most all the Corvettes on display actually are on loan from private individuals or General Motors. The first car exhibit you see upon entering the Museum is a row of Corvettes representing each of the six distinct models over the 53-year history of the marque.

Plaques on these display cars impart that 69,015 Corvette C1 convertibles were produced from 1953 to 1962; 45,546 coupes and 109,462 convertibles of the C2 from 1963 to 1967; 472,275 C3 coupes and 70,586 C3 convertibles from 1968 to 1982; 283,529 C4 coupes and 74,651 C4 convertibles from 1984 to 1996; 124, 441 C5 coupes, 85,244 C5 convertibles and 34,617 C5 hardtops from 1997 through 2004; and 26,728 C6 coupes and 10,644 C6 convertibles last year.

Chevrolet's position of having the world's most popular sports car is ironclad on the basis of the 1,406,738 Corvettes produced from its introduction in mid-1953 through 2005.

Besides the lineup of each model series and the obligatory Museum gift shop, other features of the NCM include one-of-a-kind concept cars, race cars, dealership displays, nostalgic street scenes, a cutaway 'Vette, statues of famous men in the marque's history, and even a barrier-crashed car from the GM Proving Grounds. Altogether, about 75 cars generally are on exhibit at any one time.

One of the unique aspects of the Museum is the possibility of buying a copy of the original build sheet of any Corvette assembled at Bowling Green since 1981 and a generic reproduction window price sticker for the series 'Vette involved.

And despite it being a just one-make museum, and of a contemporary vehicle at that, the NCM is well worth any car lover swinging off Exit 28 of I-65 in southern Kentucky . With careful planning you can make a day of it, taking in Mammoth Cave National Park a few miles to the northwest, the assembly plant and the Museum.

Bowling Green is 110 miles southwest of Louisville and 60 north of Nashville. Note that the Central Time Zone border crosses I-65 north of Bowling Green. The National Corvette Museum toll-free telephone number is, cleverly, 800-53-VETTE and the Web site, www.corvettemuseum.com. There is a link to the assembly plant's tour site information.

The Museum is open 8-5 Central Time every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year's Day, with admission charges of $8 adult, $6 over 55, $4.50 children 6-16, or families $20. The assembly plant's tours run twice daily, at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., but it is wise to check the Website or call them beforehand (270-745-8019) because of unpredictable plant operating schedules.

For Corvette fans enthused by their visit to the National Corvette Museum but unable to cough up $45,000 for a new one, there's also Art's Corvette used 'Vette lot on the road off the Interstate into the Museum. I noted Art displayed a single Mustang as well.

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